Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Three Tall Women
Also see Eddie's review of Twelfth Night
Edward Albee's play (winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize), Three Tall Women, provides one elderly woman the chance to have that conversation as she lies waiting to take her last breaths. Now in production by The Pear Theatre, Three Tall Women provides us an opportunity to contemplate our own lives and to assess how much we remember as it actually happened, how much we probably have forgotten that once was important, and how much we have created as truths that in fact may not have ever happened the way we now believe they did.
In Act One, we meet three nameless women identified in the program only as A, B, and C. A is a ninety-one-year-old woman of some wealth who now struggles with various deteriorating health issues. She sits in a wingback chair that serves much like her throne as she dominates the play's dialogue with random reminiscences in often exacting detail of events and people from her long life while she also struggles to remember what day it is today or what she just said the minute prior. Sometimes she rants and raves with vehemence about how much others are "robbing me blind" (including, at times, accusations of the other two in the room). Other times, she brags with an air of aristocratic arrogance about her past before suddenly spilling details about an affair while she was married or about the day she sat naked in front of the mirror with her husband standing behind her, equally bare. And over and again, she remembers and/or debates how tall she was and how short he was.
Listening to her with a mixture of patience, genuine interest, and mild-to-scolding reactions is her caregiver, B. She even enjoys an occasional giggle with A when she catches the old woman in an outright falsehood the older woman is suddenly willing to admit is not true.
Less understanding and often critical of A's misstatements, contradictions, and outright statements of racial prejudice is C, a young lawyer sent by A's law firm to sort through a pile of unattended paperwork needing A's signature. C objects time and again to what she is overhearing and is often shushed by B, who also simply shrugs her shoulders to C at other times as in "so what can I do?" Although in Albee's script, B is fifty-two and C is twenty-six, in the Pear production both appear to be about the same age in this first half.
After a climactic end of Act One, A, B, and C appear once again in the same bedroom setting as before, but this time they are each dressed in designer-worthy outfits that were probably in style when A was 26, 52, and her present 91. Each now plays the same person at those three stages of her life.
Events and people that were referred to sometimes in rather vague or confusing/contradictory ways in the first half are now given more details as the youngest wants to know why and how she becomes the other two. The other two have some fun in teasing her about her over-optimistic, often naïve presumptions about how happy she will be in her future life. A is now overall calm and accepting of the life she has lived, while B is the one who becomes the more irritated with the younger C and more agitated and even angry about certain events of her life-to-date, like a son who suddenly went away and never returned (at least not by the time the "we" were 52).
As A, Vicki Victoria is overall quite impressive as she commands most of the airtime in the first hour of the play. The ins and outs of A's mental wherewithal play out in a multitude of ways in her facial expressions that range from animated, big smiles to frozen looks of eyes looking but not seeing. Often, she looks downward as if watching some unseen screen to look for a projection of the details she is suddenly recalling or the ones she can no longer remember. The frustration she shows when she cannot remember a dog's name or if her mother and father loved her sometimes turns to anger and then to a deep and sudden sadness–or just to a blank stare, having now forgotten what she was trying to remember. Some of her statements are equally disturbing to her and to those of us listening who wonder if and when we will someday ourselves say, "I know ... and then I can't remember what I know" or "I can't remember what I can't remember."
In Act Two, Vicki Victoria's A becomes much more accepting of her state of memory, readily relying on middle-aged B to supply missing details that she cannot recall. Seeing that occur reminded one of something caretaker B says in the first half (paraphrased here): "I think you remember everything; you just can't recall it all the time; it's in there somewhere."
Vicki Victoria's portrayal of A in Act One is both stunning and painful to watch as we see the old woman suffer from body pains and bodily function issues on top of all the memory problems that she is both aware and unaware she is having. My only issue is that her voice does not sound how I hear most ninety-somethings. There is a younger, healthier quality to it than the rest of her excellent portrayal of a woman edging close to the end of life.
The contrasts of characters that Kim Seipel as B and Francheska Loy as C play in the first and second halves are striking and well performed. While I was not convinced B is fifty-two in either half, Kim Seipel does a notable job in being at least enough older than the twenty-something C to be like an older sister both in her advice and in her ridicule. Her B shares knowing looks with her older self as they listen with some incredulity to themselves at twenty-six. However, the mild temperament and patience that B shows as a caregiver in Act One is long gone as the same actor now has an opportunity to go into the kind of screaming fits and cynical, accusatory jabs that her older self sometimes did in Act One. We get to see how the eldest personality has developed some of its characteristics along the way.
The more distant and often disassociated C of Act One is in Act Two a ball of curiosity about her future selves while also defiant that there is no way she will become what she sees before her. Francheska Loy provides her own wide range of visible reactions to what she is seeing and hearing–horrified in one moment with disbelieving eyes of "I will not become that," adamant the next for B to "stay out of my life," and full of dismissal at another that "they don't know me." The irony always is that she is only talking about herself the entire time, something that, when eventually the three sit next to each other on a bedside bench, finally seems to become accepted by each of the "hers."
Joining this cast of three near the end of the play is a silent but expressive Mikee Loria, who takes on the role of someone B has not seen in years and of whom A has more recent knowledge and relationship. His non-interactive appearance and inability to sense or see the other three opens the door for very different reactions from his mother and her three, different ages.
Reed Flores' direction of the second half is more compelling and captivating than the first. There are periods the first act seems to drag, largely due to a script that seems to go on and on with A rambling and at times raging in her recalled memories, forgotten memories, and periods of present, mental absence. I found it difficult to not look at my watch during the first half, while it never occurred to me in the second.
Sonja Meyers' set design depicts what one might expect from an old lady's bedroom, with furniture pieces that were clearly bought at a high price many years prior, now having that tired look–much like their owner. The costume designs of Marisely Cortes particularly help us have empathy for the near-invalid A of Act One and help us place both ages and time periods on the three depictions of the same person in Act Two. (One wonderful touch is that each of the three in Act Two wear the same drop-pearl earrings that A wears in Act One.) The lighting of Sonya Wong provides with its bordering, figurative shadows a sense of the many seasons the person before us has passed, while three large, paned windows against the back wall seem to symbolize the three views of the same person we are privileged to see.
The decision to cast all parts of this Pear production with actors of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) identities provides a shared background that helps us to think about what challenges A had to overcome in her life and how that might say something about her prejudices, her bitterness, and her sense of proud accomplishment. What has she seen; what cultural expectations were forced on her by parents or spouse; what has she had to endure from neighbors and strangers; or what has she had to learn that a woman with majority identity would not? The choice of casting is in itself a great reason to endure a bit too-long first half and relish a totally intriguing second half of The Pear Theatre's noteworthy production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women.
Three Tall Women runs through July 17, 2022, in repertory with Julia Cho's The Piano Teacher, at The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida Avenue, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thepear.org or call 650-254-1148.